Food shopping has become a deeply impersonal experience. Which is why the concept of organic groceries, delivered hand-to-hand is enough to warm anyone’s heart
These days, the concept of home-delivered fruit and vegetables is likely to be a familiar one. Whether you order from one of the big four, an online store such as Ocado, or from one of the many subscription-based suppliers, you’re probably aware you can get fresh produce without having to leave the house. But it wasn’t always this way. Riverford Organic Farms was one of the pioneers of home-delivered groceries, giving people access to organic produce literally right on their doorstep. If you imagine The Good Life, in documentary format and minus Felicity Kendall, you’ll probably get a good impression of how the organic food producer began.
Riverford was set up 25 years ago after founder Guy Watson began to tire of the rat-race. “Guy was a management consultant in New York, among other places,” says Nicky Morgan, Riverford’s franchise services manager. “He hated the lifestyle and always wanted to get back to his farming family roots.” Central to Watson’s vision for developing his family’s farm was that he wanted to do it in a way that didn’t utilise insecticides, chemical fertilisers and pesticides. “These sorts of chemicals had actually caused illness among people that he knew,” explains Morgan. “That’s when he decided to go organic, to grow healthy, sustainable, seasonal vegetables and get them out to a local audience.”
Watson’s approach also didn’t favour mass-production or excessive, high-yield techniques. “He really did start with one field, one crop and a wheelbarrow,” says Morgan. “Being organic and given the amount of land he started with, he didn’t want to be tied to the multiples and their ethos, which went very much against his own grain.” And this proved to be vital to the way the business developed, with small-scale local distribution shaping the whole future of the enterprise. “Guy decided that actually sending the stuff to friends of his would be the best option and they said, ‘That’s really nice’,” she remarks. “They recommended their own friends, the next year he planted a few different types of crops and then more people were referred. That’s how it got started.”
This lent itself very naturally to a franchise model and some 13 years ago Riverford reached out to franchisees to help expand and maintain its network. Morgan recalls: “They presented a really useful vehicle to be able to scale out nationally – as a distribution network, effectively – because it’s door-to-door deliveries and very much a people-based business.” Not only this, but it has found franchisees are naturally more inclined to be personally invested in a way that an employee without a stake in the business rarely are. “The relationships that get built on the ground level with the franchisee tend to be much more valuable and tend to have much greater integrity than those with internal employees,” she says.
Currently Riverford owns four farms around the country; in addition to its main farm in Devon, it also has land in Hampshire, Cambridgeshire and North Yorkshire. They also embrace local cooperatives and organic growers to help them meet demand. “We sell between 40,000-45,000 boxes a week so it’s a fairly big operation,” remarks Morgan. “But we also want to be able to still grow produce as locally to our customer base as possible.” Despite the fact that regional variations occasionally mean they have to transport certain types of vegetable from another one of the farms, the core aim of Riverford is to give people access to the local produce grown on their doorstep.
Before you get an idea of Riverford being a small-town phenomenon, however, it’s also proving to be a huge hit in cities. Morgan elaborates: “If you look at some of our London franchises they’re up 15-20% year-on-year, which goes to show that there really is a high demand, especially given the fact that the organic market has shown quite considerable decline over the last four or five years.” What’s more, the organisation has been winning plenty of awards in recognition of its work, netting four compassion in farming awards for its recent line in delivered meat boxes. And, significantly, for his efforts Watson was recently given the title of BBC Radio 4 Farmer of the Year. “That’s really exciting and is a big deal for us,” Morgan comments. “What the judges were looking for was a good farming story but one that relates very well to good business.”
But even though it’s an award-winning national enterprise, local, people-focused distribution is what Riverford is all about. “A recent survey with our franchise network showed that what they regard as one of their greatest assets across the business are their customers,” explains Morgan. The company prides itself on the relationships it builds with the consumer, something that is vital for consumables that are likely to be ordered again and again. “I don’t know any other business that’s as people orientated as this, and the real engagement our customers have is that they understand we are farmers above everything. That’s why our real heartland, our core customers, want to buy from Riverford.”